THIS week’s announcement by Business Secretary Sajid Javid that the Conservative government will push ahead with punitive new plans for strike ballots isn’t just a blow for union members. It’s a blow for British democracy.
Politicians often say that the alternative to strikes is talking, but there is a difference between talking and negotiating. You only get real negotiation when there is power on both sides of the table.
Collective bargaining works because both sides understand what the other can deliver. This is why the vast majority of ballots do not result in strikes but a negotiated deal.
But take away the right to official strike and one of two things happens. Either workers end up asking their employer for more — with as much power as Oliver Twist brought to the negotiating table — or you end up with unofficial action, whether so-called “wildcat” strikes or mass duvet days.
No other mainstream political party in the world has launched such a fundamental attack on this basic human right.
The government’s plans for union ballots will make legal strikes close to impossible. The architects of these plans know that union ballots, particularly of large dispersed workforces, rarely meet a 50 per cent threshold, and that a turnout threshold does not even test the level of support for a strike.
What the proposals are really about is stopping opposition to the Conservatives’ plans to cut hundreds of thousands of public-sector jobs over this parliament.
Unions are too often the last line of defence on these issues, and the government wants to make it more difficult for ordinary people, firefighters, nurses, midwives, and teachers to express their democratic wishes and to take industrial action in defence of their jobs and pay.
No other western European democracy has tried to limit industrial action in this way.
As well as increasing ballot thresholds, the Conservatives have announced that they will lift the ban on employers using agency staff during strikes — a deliberate attempt to break those strikes that do take place.
And in a sinister taste of things to come, they want to create specific new criminal offences for people on picket lines and those using social media during strikes.
The Conservatives are proposing that if a seventh person joins a peaceful and good-natured picket line, all seven could be prosecuted and given a criminal record.
New specific technology offences will mean strikers will face tougher legal restrictions on Twitter than other people. This will open up union activists to enhanced surveillance as potential criminals.
Make no mistake. The Conservatives’ strike plans are the most aggressive assault on basic labour rights anywhere in the developed world and will impact on union and non-union members alike.
It is essential that all fair-minded democrats fight them.
Frances O’Grady is general secretary of the Trades Union Congress.